Without question, John Muir was a catch. Had I been alive in the late 1800s, when he was traipsing through Yosemite, I am positive that — if we met on a trail in view of Half Dome — I would have swooned.
I am, in a sense, swooning even now over Muir’s muscular legacy: how he founded the Sierra Club in 1892, and in 1905 led President Theodore Roosevelt on the backpacking trip that ultimately preserved Yosemite as the National Park we love today.
Struck as I am by the alpenglow of these great achievements, I’m equally charmed by the small details of his life: his literary leanings and the famed image of him wandering the Sierras with a crust of bread in his pocket. His priorities were clearly in order. A giddy romantic, he wasted no time on banalities such as dinner. Who has time to for food when there are so many mountains to climb, sunsets to watch, and streams to cross? Muir’s vision was too big for mincing garlic and peeling potatoes.
Obviously, I’m not the only one smitten by this Prince of the Mountains. It seems we cannot pay him enough homage. So many places are named in honor of Muir — hospitals, museums, hiking trails. In 2006, astronomer R.E. Jones even named a planet “Johnmuir.” So great is the temptation to honor him that the U.S, Geological Survey has had to discourage further attribution of his name to the landscape. If every place carries his namesake, how will we distinguish one place from another?
And, yet, as I wandered the John Muir Wilderness last week, scrambling over the famous blue granite, swimming in tule-lined lakes, and gawking at the wildflowers, I had the sensation that no person’s name—not even John Muirs’—was large enough to contain the magnificence around me. Nature, I find, is too timeless, too universal, and too irreducible for even the greatest pronoun.
And so, as my hiking companion and I followed the trails that led through the wilderness, we sought to rename it. “How about‘The Peoples’ Glorious Revolutionary Wilderness?’ he quipped.
It had a Soviet-era ring, but I liked it. I could imagine the sign arching across every trailhead:
THE PEOPLES’ GLORIOUS REVOLUTIONARY WILDERNESS
I wonder if a title so grandiose and all-encompassing might broaden our concept of the place, might even change our relationship to it. I wonder if perhaps we would start treating wilderness less like a borrowed tent, and more like what it really is: a place of our own.